‘I get out, talk to people and surf on the goodwill of humanity.’

The unclassifiable Allison Walker on how opening up our senses can enhance our spaces 

6 minute read / Rosanna Vitiello

You can’t define Allison or what she does, but by the end of this conversation we’ll all know more. Part strategic communicator, part gossip anthropologist, her talents lie between disciplines: getting people and places who rarely share their perspectives to open up. 

Allison and I met while working on the Olympic Park, where she drew out the little-known story behind its landscape design, so she knows a thing or two about narrative. Raised in New Jersey, she started out in PR for MoMA and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, before going on to develop far-ranging cultural experiences: from middle England heritage sites to Middle Eastern national monuments. Allison now researches how intuitive forms of communication help us understand our world better. And you’re as likely to find her climbing trees as boxing with an old boys choir in an attempt to get to know both. Allison took us out to Tilbury in Essex to give us her perspective on sensory spaces. 

You grew up in New Jersey, a State that people love or hate: let’s put it this way, it has a strong character. How do you think it’s influenced your way of looking at places?
New Jersey has a lot of qualities that you can only appreciate having grown up there, that people aren’t aware of. It’s a more nuanced place than people think. I mean, I had to move all the way to London to be able to appreciate Bruce Springsteen. I think being from New Jersey - then not being in New Jersey any more - has influenced how I approach things.

When I go to places, I often find that because people view me as 'other' - they can’t quite figure out what I am. Maybe it’s that New Jersey / New York-ishness, as well as being Asian-American: people will start talking to me. Perhaps they're more open to me, because they ask, ‘Who are you and where do you come from?’ And it enables me to take a deeper view on a place. Some people tell me deep dark secrets, and I don’t know what to do with that information!

What's your approach to getting to know a place?
There are lots of ways that people experience place. Some people are kitted out when they head out to explore; they have gear and a compass. I go out with a map, but I don’t know how to read it very well. So really what I do is get out there, talk to people and surf on the goodwill of humanity; that’s how I find out about unusual places and what really interests people about why they live where they do.

Some people way-find their way through a place, and I kind of way-fare. I look for this convergence of interesting things.


Your training was in communication. When you look at a place and those who inhabit it, are you establishing what the cultural leylines are?
Yeah. Like when you’re in New York, everyone wants to go where the New Yorkers go. Or go where the chefs go after the restaurants close, or look for where the fire trucks are getting their groceries. I think it’s looking for different signs and way markers in society. I find out a lot more about a place through the context of the people who live there and what’s interesting to them. Or how they came to live there. And I always find there’s a lot of nuanced history that you might not read about in a textbook.

There’s a general interest in site specific art, but I’m more interested in site-specific being. Like how do I behave in that space, versus how I behave in another space? And why is that? How did this space give rise to the people who use it? Even in the small messages we can think about how we can use spaces more effectively or to a different end.

If you were to trying to define what narrative placemaking could be, what would you say?
What’s interesting about it is the idea of combinatorial creativity. So museums came out of Victorian times and the need for ‘ologies’, where everything focused on structuring the world. What became apparent is that, as science evolved and as we are all evolving, we are putting things together and creating new ways of being that we couldn’t have without having had those systems in place before. We’re now creating circumstances where things are becoming more blended. So narrative placemaking brings the idea of people into place. For me, it’s much more visceral. It’s not so much the idea of narrative, it’s like ‘us being in a space’. 

Dejan Sudjic’s book The Language of Things highlights how every object you design has a meaning, a language all of it’s own. 
Yeah, one of the things that I’ve always been really interested in is semiotics. For me, the way we experience anything in life is a form of semiotics. It’s about the sequence of what came before and what came after our syntax of being. One of the things that frustrates me about museum interpretation is that we don’t look seriously enough at the context of the person: where they came from, the sequence of their path and what they encounter. It’s like punctuation in a sentence.

You can seriously change the meaning of something just by swapping the sequence of objects, and that’s the same in a place. How you encounter it is really important.

In the age of Google Maps, where places are so connected to digital now, do you think people expect to have a story about a place before they even go there?
I think we run the risk of losing that magical reveal. In a way, my talking to random people on the street is almost like a real-live Google search. But the parameters are based on my being there and whoever I encounter. And my sussing out who seems approachable, and what they might be able to tell me, like, 'could you tell me about a working men’s club, or not?’ It's narrowed down on their side by their points of view and perspective and where they've lived - as opposed to an algorithm.

If you were to give me one principle for placemaking, what would it be?
Open yourself up to follow your instincts. By opening yourself up you get rid of your own views on what you're thinking. When I was teaching at Loughborough they asked me what my superpower would be, and I said it’s that I have really big ears. So I listen and feel things really carefully. Maybe I'm able to do that because I'm from New Jersey - I can say, 'I don't get it' and its okay!

The Takeaway Drawing on Allison's approach


Places are often designed by visual practioners, and it's too easy to forget the full realm of senses when we're creating spaces.

Expanding our palette Textures thrill us, smell triggers memory, sound can turn heads or repel. If we extend our notions of communication to include all senses we create experiences that knock us for six. The Canadian Centre for Architecture's Sense in the City project gathers ideas around this new approach: so where are the musicians or the perfumiers involved in shaping spaces? 

Creating a sensory signature The combination of these elements is so powerful and playful, that used right they can become the defining characteristics of a place: a sensory signature in the way some people have an accent, or a signature smell.